Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sacred deer and a Giant Buddha

J and S's Grand Adventures in the East Part 4: Nara

Our hostel was a short 3-minute walk from the train station and was a ryokan-style accommodation. (A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn.) The day we arrived was oppressively hot so we headed over to the Nara gyoen (park) to see the famous Nara deer. See, because of the Buddhist temples and the Temple of the Great Daibatsu, the deer of the city are considered sacred. That means they are left alone and can roam wherever they please. They typically stick to the parks, but we did see them wander in the streets and even up to the temple. Never missing an opportunity to make some money, the locals started selling deer biscuits so that lame tourists could feed the deer and pet them.

We'd heard that they bow for biscuits. Turns out, so did we.
"You got any more of those biscuits?"

 Later that evening we headed to the Todai-ji temple, where the largest bronze statute of Buddha sits. In Japanese, these statutes are called "Daibatsu." According to Wikipedia, the temple is also the largest wooden structure in the world (it kind of has to be, when Buddha is almost 50 feet tall). We lucked out that day as there was a lantern festival going on.

It's hard to tell how big he is, but I think I was about the size of his finger.
There were huge throngs of people waiting in line (with deer interspersed). The temple was huge and they had lit several hundred (perhaps thousand?) lanterns. The moon was big and bright and the whole thing felt surreal. We eventually entered the temple and saw the Daibatsu. Monks were chanting in the background. I can barely express how big he was.  Earlier that day we had popped into the Nara National Museum (the free part of it, anyway) and saw an exhibit that showed how they made the Daibatsu statutes. Apparently they split his head down the middle and put in crystal eyes with white cloth behind them to make them look real. For the hair, they sculpted each curl individually and then added them one by one, in a particular sequence, to the head. But, looking at the Great Daibatsu, I couldn't figure out how they put it together.

For dinner we had udon and rice at a small mom and pop type noodle restaurant. The kind with a vending machine outside.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Wrapping up Korea

Before we left Korea for good, the country hit a remarkable milestone. They had 100% cell phone use. I'm not really sure how to word it, but basically there was one cell phone being used for each Korean. That blew my mind when I heard it, but if you consider the part that phones take in their lives, I suppose it makes sense. They use their cell phones as TVs, debit cards, dictionaries, subway maps, access to the internet, and occasionally for texting and calling.

Stuff I already miss:
My apartment
Cheap, reliable transportation
Food (well, Korean food) and its availability 24 hours a day at a cheap price
Having a convenience store in my apartment building
Having Emart down the street
Nice people*
Making money instead of being in debt**
Not tipping

*Being in a new city, I now realize how patient Koreans were with me. Not only was I a total noob, but I didn't speak their language. For the most part, they were extremely welcoming and helpful. Here in Chicago, I feel like I'm a constant pain in everyone's side.
**Not Korea-specific

Friday, October 15, 2010

J and S's Grand Adventures in the East Part 3: Kyoto, part 2

We embarked the next day to discover Kyoto, the historic Japan. First we went to a temple called Kiyomizu-dera, which was at the top of a hill. On the way up, we had to pass at least two dozen souvenir stands. So much for historic. Once we got to the top, there were a number of temples, and the place was crowded with young, yukata-wearing couples. Why couples? They have something called a "love stone." Legend has it that if you walk backward from the love stone to another stone located about 10 feet away, you will get a wish. And if you don't do it successfully you won't fall in love for a long time.

Walking back, the heat gave us an unneeded excuse to buy ice cream. We went for the triple-decker: orange, green, and white. It turned out to be the fascinating combination of vanilla, green tea and mango. As we ate it, we wandered along the Path of Philosophy. It was a trail that ran alongside a canal, with boutique shops, bars, and restaurants on either side. I believe it was a Sunday, so it was practically empty. It made for a very serene, and very long, stroll. We stopped into one shop to look at yukatas and kimonos.

With a little bit of time left, we headed over to Ginkakuji Temple, home of the Silver Pavilion. It is so-called because the rooftop is silver. There was also a very cool Zen sand garden.

The next day we grabbed a train to Nara, Japan's first capital.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tokyo National Museum Sink!

My co-traveler finally got around to uploading his pictures from our Oriental experience, and lo and behold, the sink was among them! Check it out...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

J and S's Grand Adventures in the East Part 3: Kyoto, part 1

We just left Kyoto and are on our way to Nara now. Let's backtrack a little bit...

Jon and I got train tickets for Kyoto leaving in the afternoon. We had to check out of our (awful) hostel that morning and planned to leave our luggage at the Tokyo train station while we did some last minute sightseeing in the city. Unfortunately, when we got to the train station there was an enormous line to use the luggage lockers. Whether something had been canceled, it was an inordinately busy day, or it was just a normal occurrence for Tokyo, we didn't know. What we did know was that there did not seem to be any available lockers and it would take us hours to get through the line.

With little else to do, we headed back to the ticket office to trade in our afternoon tickets for earlier ones. Since we couldn't leave our baggage at the station, and we didn't want to lug it around with us while we saw stuff, we'd just have to leave early. There were seats available in a smoking car on an earlier train so we grabbed those and headed to the platform.

Despite the change in plans, we were still really excited to take the Shinkhansen train down to Kyoto. We climbed aboard, stowed our luggage in the luggage area, and took our seats. They have mini-flumes to suction out the cigarette smoke and there were few people smoking anyway, so we didn't really have to deal with smoke. I quickly nodded off.

Before I knew it, we had arrived at Kyoto station. I have to admit, all I really knew about Kyoto before arriving was that it was historical; it had been the old Japanese capital. And that was it. Everyone in Tokyo who found out we were going there nodded approvingly saying that it was a great place to see old Japan. So I suppose I had a certain image in my head of a low-tech, but beautiful town. Kyoto station definitely shattered those illusions.

In reality, Kyoto was another quintessential fast-paced city. Sure, it was no Tokyo, but its train station was fantastically futuristic. There were escalators going up 8 stories to an observation deck from where we could see a view of the whole city (and evade paying for the same view at the top of Kyoto Tower. Japan: 0 Me :1)
We weren't the only ones enjoying the view.
We went straight to our hostel: a clean, fun, and very professional place called K's House. Everything we'd lacked in Tokyo, we suddenly had in Kyoto. It was surprising how much of an effect on my mood having nice accommodations had. After checking in and putting our things down, we relaxed for a bit and inquired about the Gion, an area where the geisha were known to frequent. We were given directions and headed out there in search of one of Japan's lost artists. 

The Gion was a busy street, but we didn't see any geisha. The main drag was filled primarily with youths and tourists, but after taking a turn down a side street, we stumbled across that old historic Japan we'd heard about. The buildings appeared to be residences and the streets were more like cobblestone alleyways. It was quiet and dark, and without the aid of lampposts we were unable to make out many details.
We later joined up with other tourists and found a canal down an old-style backstreet.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Back to School

While I finish uploading the last few entries from my adventures in Japan and China, I'll also be returning to my old blog here. It will detail my newest adventure of moving to another city (one even more daunting than Seoul) and another school (this time I'm the student). Hopefully I'll also try to curb my use of parantheses (but don't count on it).

Sunday, October 3, 2010

J and S's Grand Adventures in the East Part 2 : Nikko

8/12: Nikko
Jon and I exchanged our Rail pass orders for the passes themselves today and no we’re on our way to Nikko (we’ll take a bullet train to the nearest big city and then a local train to Nikko). Since it is the busy season we weren’t able to get reserved seats and while we did make it on the train, we are separated. So now I’m sitting on the high-speed Shinkansen, but to be honest, it doesn’t feel that fast. I was planning to take a nap but I’m sitting next to 2 Japanese teenagers, so I probably won’t.

Yesterday, Jon and I decided to go to an internet café to book a new Shanghai hostel (we were having issues with the one we booked originally). We’ve been going to this one internet place, but we thought we’d try another one. We saw a building that had 24H Internet Café signs and posters all over it. It was pretty late, but since the sign said 24 hours we tried it out. However, when we got there the door was locked, there was a camera, and we had to ring a doorbell in order to get in. After a few attempts, we had the sneaking suspicion that it was not, in fact, an internet café. The neighborhood around the building had “love hotels” and strange men handing out hooker cards, and we realized that the “24H Internet Café” signs probably belied a brothel of sorts.

We’re now on the train headed back to Tokyo. It’s about 7:00 PM. Nikko was very pretty, but also crowded and expensive. Located on a hill, the weather was much cooler and the surrounding scenery was lovely and a nice change from the city. The Buddhist shrines were extraordinarily ornate and colorful. We saw the earliest representation of the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil monkeys in the Toshu-gu temple. We purchased a combination ticket thinking it would give us access to everything, but unfortunately we needed to buy extra tickets to see certain tombs (really, Japan?) There are also a bunch of waterfalls in the area but they were  a little far (about 60 km), and probably would have been easier seen with a tour group. There were a lot of foreigners out today, mainly Spaniards.

Next we’re going back to Ueno and we’ll probably spend some time in that area before going back to the hostel. I think we’re also going to get our tickets for Kyoto.